MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - Thousands of laptops and iPads issued to students at Twin Cities area schools have gone missing since the pandemic – and it’s costing millions of dollars, according to a FOX 9 Investigators analysis of inventory data.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, schools began to rely on remote learning to educate students. Many school districts issued Chromebooks or iPads to make remote learning a possibility. However, keeping track of those devices has been a huge challenge despite the return to in-person classes.
Sixth-grader Hayes Peterson carries his Chromebook practically every day. He said it is "a pretty nice handy tool" and he can use it for all his classes. His mother said Hayes keeps pretty good track of the device, and she’s lucky her kids are responsible.
However, that’s not the case for every student. Hayes recalls one classmate losing their Chromebook last year.
Missing devices at Minneapolis Public Schools
At Minneapolis Public Schools, 5,391 student-issued Chromebooks have been lost or stolen along with 68 iPads and 328 mobile hot spots between Fall 2021 and Spring 2023 — costing at least $1.67 million to replace, according to inventory data obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators.
MPS said each year, 30% of its inventory is lost or stolen.
This comes at a time when MPS faces a dire financial future, mainly due to declining enrollment at its schools and a failure to cut costs. A five-year projection predicted an "imminent financial crisis."
When it comes to lost and stolen student devices, some MPS parents have questions.
"I think there are a lot of factors going into the financial issues in the public schools, and all of them should probably be examined," said MPS parent Jessica Beckwith.
It’s worth noting, the data MPS provided on missing technology is not complete, since at the height of the pandemic when a lot of devices were issued, MPS said it did not centrally collect and reconcile inventory until the summer of 2022.
In a statement, a spokesperson for MPS said in part: "Since the return to in-person learning, we have implemented a new checkout system for student devices and have been able to make a more accurate count."
Anoka-Hennepin missing school devices
According to data provided by the Anoka-Hennepin School District, at least 848 Chromebooks went missing within the last three years, costing about $228,445.
A spokesperson for Anoka-Hennepin Schools said in an email: "Funding to replace lost or damaged computers is provided through a $4.5 million capital projects level that funds district technology along with any contributions from families who are unable to return a device."
Since the fall of 2019, Independent School District 196 (Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan) lost at least 1,174 iPads and 96 Chromebooks, costing at least $352, 795, according to data provided by the district.
St. Paul Public Schools
A warehouse in St. Paul buzzes with activity as Director of Support Services Brian Flotterud walks through what he calls "iPad central." Each iPad is packaged, shipped and delivered to about 30,000 students district-wide.
St. Paul Public Schools inventory records show at least 3,170 student-issued iPads have been lost or stolen since 2020, costing at least $951,000.
"Pre-pandemic, our lost rate was hovering around 4%, which talking to our industry partners is pretty on par with many other school districts around the country post-pandemic," Flotterud said. "We’ve seen it tick up to about 4.5% — but also in that same time, we have distributed or allowed 20,000 additional students to start taking those devices home."
Managing it all has been a team effort by St. Paul Public Schools leadership.
"Fortunately for us, most students before we went into the pandemic already had a device checked out to them and they were already enrolled with that device," Flotterud said.
Assistant Superintendent Adam Kunz told the FOX 9 Investigators, St. Paul Public Schools does not charge students or families for lost or stolen devices, citing state law.
When asked how the district plans for lost devices financially, Kunz said: "We anticipate students will likely lose, break these devices…so we plan and budget to buy more devices than we have students."
While iPads already have built-in location tracking capabilities, St. Paul school officials say they generally can’t be activated by the school district to find a lost or stolen device because of student privacy restrictions.
However, there are some safeguards designed to prevent the iPads from ending up on the black market, which has happened before.
"Immediately when that device is reported as lost or stolen, we restrict that device, we lock it down, and it’s not able to be used by anybody else," Flotterud said.
The cost of business?
While more schools across the Twin Cities see a rise in lost and stolen devices, it may be the price of doing business.
"I think that having devices in student hands in this era is critical," Kunz said. "We need that for St. Paul kids, and so that would never be something that would be on the table to take away."
That’s a sentiment shared by some Minnesota parents.
"I mean, it’s a lot of money and that’s a lot of devices, and I still think there’s value to the program," said MPS parent Jessica Beckwith.